Max Black is a typical movie studio head. The pictures he makes are just a way for him to get his grubby hands on a young starlet by offering her a part, and they’re also his ticket into the biggest Hollywood parties where he can raid the whiskey and cigars and grope the help. For the record, I would do the exact same thing in if I was in his shoes, but still. Oh, and then there’s the money. The actual quality of the pictures are meaningless; a picture is good if it makes money and it’s bad if it doesn’t.
Well, Max has his eyes set on hot young starlet Marie, but she is engaged to wax museum owner Cameron Mitchell. No matter; Black sets fire to Cam and several months later offers Marie the leading role in his next big picture. However, things aren’t so simple. Marie is distraught that her interim actor boyfriend Tony has mysteriously disappeared, and has lost all passion for acting as a result. Oh, I should’ve mentioned that Marie left Cameron after he got all burnt to shit, but I don’t blame her in the least. Not only did the flame job leave Cameron completely covered in bandages except for one eye, it turned him into a total chain smoking asshole who would just yell at Marie when she would visit him in the hospital. I find it unbelievable that the nurses let him chain smoke after being set on fire to the point that he’s completely covered in bandages, but that was the 60’s for ya.
Anyway, good ole’ Cammy Mitch has since recovered quite nicely and gone back to work at the museum, left with only some old chewing gum on his cheek and a busted eye he covers up with a patch. Lo and behold, Cam creates an astonishingly lifelike head of Tony right after he disappears in order to honor his great acting career. Max catches wind of this and decides that he can lure Marie into starring in his movie by having a wax figure of Tony co-star along with her, with the idea that she’ll be comforted by an approximation of her boyfriend. I guess that makes sense. It should be noted that the movie is apparently a suspense version of Chekhov’s "Three Sisters" directed by a Alfred Hitchcock knockoff named “Alfred Herrmann” (via Bernard Herrmann). I’m not quite sure how you could make a taut suspense thriller from a play of three Russian sisters yelling at each other, but maybe the wax figure is that key element that makes it all work.
The astute viewer, or even the lobotomized viewer for that matter, should quickly figure out that Cameron is using real people as his wax figures. However, instead of simply killing people and covering them in wax, it looks like he injects them with some drug that makes them motionless, so some of the “wax figures” are just people standing still and occasionally twitching. Some of them are just human heads that occasionally talk and moan. Incredibly, these figures don't arise suspicion. Even some detectives who are looking for Tony visit the museum, but don’t even find it strange that a version of Tony’s head with perfect human skin is sitting there. Indeed, they only visit him to procure advice on how to solve the case. I don’t know why all wax museums don’t just kill people and use their corpses rather than take the time and cost to build wax figures if it’s that damn easy to get away with it.
Nightmare in Wax is essentially a remake of House of Wax (1953), the 3-D Vincent Price vehicle, which itself was a remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). This version adds a wonderfully ludicrous flashback backstage Hollywood structure, like someone with a head wound trying to ripoff The Bad and the Beautiful. There is also plenty of mid-60’s kitsch (making it oddly outdated considering it was released in 1969), especially in the amazing scene where Cameron visits a go-go club to try and lure an incredibly dumb redhead dancer to his museum. Then there’s the groovy hairstyles on the women, and the steamy sax solos anytime two people kiss.
Most of all, the movie has a pretty cool dimestore Mario Bava candy colored aesthetic. The photography is especially effective in the scene where Cameron chases around the aforementioned redhead through the museum, what with the atmospehric lighting and distended camera angles. Cameron magically teleports around and pops up to scare her, even shoving a mannequin head in her face, and the real wax figures and wax limbs add to the creepiness factor. Granted, the rest of the movie is mostly dumb goofy fun, but it does have this nice creepy centerpiece that almost operates as a carny ride of sorts. That is, if there was a carny ride through a wax museum. Maybe you could just ride on through with a go kart or something. That would be pretty awesome.
P.S. This was written as part of Project Terrible, hosted by Alex over at Mondo Bizarro. This particular movie was picked for me to review by Maynard over at his Horror Movie Diary. Check 'em out!